You’ve finished dinner, put the kids to bed, and you’re about to binge-watch a television show you’re likely embarrassed to admit you’re even watching when a notification pops up on your screen. The message—from a younger team member who now seems to be working on a noon-to-midnight schedule—is marked urgent. Do you open it and respond?
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. In the world of remote work, what it means to be “off” is murky. Now, as some people return to the office and others go permanently remote, time off is about to get even more difficult to define and protect.
So, how does one juggle the desire to be a team player without committing to working 24/7? And should this decision be left up to employees, or is it time for leaders to take a clear stand?
What is “the right to disconnect”?
The “right to disconnect” is a lobby that has been brewing for years. It also seems to mean very different things in different contexts.
Not surprisingly, the earliest “right to disconnect” legislation was implemented in France, also home to an envious 35-hour workweek. In 2016, the French government ruled that any company with 50 or more workers must draw up a “charter of good conduct” outlining when employees are not expected to be online responding to messages.
Since then, “right to disconnect” legislation has been adopted in a few other jurisdictions, including Spain. But rather than gain momentum as legislation, in most parts of the world, calls for the “right to disconnect” seem to be coming from company leaders or employees.
For example, in 2017, the German car manufacturer Daimler introduced a “mail on holiday policy”. Under the policy, employees can opt into one of three messages before going on vacation, including a message that says that any email sent will be deleted. According to Daimler officials, the policy came as a huge relief to employees and enhanced work-life balance.
In other cases, workers have led the charge to disconnect. One might not think about police officers when they think about online work, but there are growing demands on law enforcement officers to make themselves available outside work hours. In spring 2021, one Australian police union decided that enough is enough. The expectation, they argued, was taking a toll on officers’ mental health. In response, they voted to adopt a “right to disconnect” for their members.
Balancing work flexibility with right to disconnect policies
In a 2018 Fast Company article, I argued that “right to disconnect” legislation is unlikely to work, especially in the United States. Instead, I suggested that a holistic approach—one focused on helping employees better manage their boundaries—is the best solution.
After more than a year of remote work, I still maintain that this is the right approach. But for the approach to be effective, leaders need to provide clear guidance on when employees need to be available online and when they can log off. To begin, leaders should ask themselves five key questions:
Do you have a compelling need to have your employees available online all the time? If not, have you communicated with employees about when they don’t need to be available online?
If you need some employees available 24/7, ask yourself: A) Who are these employees? B) Why are they required to be available online outside regular work hours? C) Are these employees compensated for their additional availability, and if not, could they be? D) What is their constant availability worth to you and your organisation (i.e., how much are you willing to pay for 24/7 access)?
Asking some employees to be available outside regular work hours shouldn’t be a crime. However, if a leader needs to do this, it is important to be clear about who is and is not obligated to make themselves available outside regular work hours, know why one is making this “ask,” and be prepared to pay for it.
For anyone who doesn’t need to be available 24/7 and likely would benefit from disconnecting, leaders are strongly advised to provide clear guidance on expectations. Leaders can also support their employees by helping them understand the power of taking time off to recharge.
— Psychology Today
Dr Camille Preston is a leading business psychologist and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership.
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